It was during an inspection by Guatemala’s President Jorge Ubico that an unusual report came to his ears that immediately caused suspicion. Ubico, a starchy and ruthless military man, had come to power originally as a reformer but became increasingly autocratic in his treatment of his fellow citizens, just as he had grown almost paranoid in his paranoia about journalists, communists, and teachers. To these three categories could be added that of foreigners, even while German and American diplomats, bankers, and businessmen usually were met unctuously by the tropical autocrat. His regime lasted from 1931 until 1944; he has been blamed for running his country like a private fiefdom and also murdering his opponents.
This story appears in a biography penned by Guatemalan writer Carlos Samayoa Chinchilla, in his book “The Dictator and Me.” Samayoa Chinchilla served as an aide to Ubico throughout his term in office.
In this instance, Ubico was on one of his customary inspection tours where he queried the local officials about affairs in their towns and districts. The governor of the Zacapa region was brought to Ubico in the regional capital to give account of his time in office. Ubico asked whether anything was new in Zacapa. The governor answered, “Nothing of importance. The only thing that’s new, if you can call it that, is that a man has arrived here who appears to be suspicious.”
“Why do you say that?” said the president, with his usual harshness.
The governor began his account of the stranger who he suspected of being a spy:
“About five months ago, he was seen for the first time seated on a rock, close to the bridge over the Polochic River where the road leads to Chiquimula. At first I thought that he was a hobo, but I soon found out that, instead, he is a tremendous worker. Every morning he comes to the town and calls at the door of every business, where he asks whether they have something for him to do. He sweeps the floors, pulls up weeds, and washes the walls of the town. And the strangest thing is that he never asks for compensation for his work. He lives by begging, out in the weather nearly naked, and takes shelter underneath the bridge.”
“One day, he asked Otto – the German owner of a hardware store – for five dollars. The store owner give the stranger the five dollars, thinking that this was payment for the work done in his store. The stranger, though, immediately wrapped the money in a scrap of paper and gave it to an Indian beggar. That’s another one of his strange customs: he never touches money with his hands.”
The governor continued, "One morning, he seemed to be praying on the river bank when a group of boys approached who brought a small dog. That day, a cart had rolled over and crushed the dog’s paws. The boys had come to cast the dog into the river. The stranger told that this was not right and then convinced them to surrender the dog to his care. So, over several weeks, the stranger cared for the dog and put plasters on its injured paws. Ever since then, the dog has been his constant companion.”
The president asked, “Does he have any papers?”
“Yes,” replied the governor. “I ordered him to appear in my office, fearing, as I mentioned, that he might be a spy or fugitive from Honduras. But it turns out that his documents are in order and signed by a British consul.”
“So what in the hell is he doing in Guatemala?” demanded the irate president.
“That is the mystery that he does not want to reveal,” replied the governor. “It was about two months ago that a sergeant of the guard fell sick. The surgeon gave him up for dead. It seemed to be some grave illness. The stranger asked permission to heal him and he did. Later, in the hospital, he has treated other people. People from Progreso and Jalapa have been coming to see him. His heart is even moved by the plight of pigs; he never eats meat. And he is ready at any time to provide a service, regardless of how filthy or low it might be.”
The president demanded, “I want to see this man.”
So it was about fifteen minutes later that there appeared in the office a strange figure of a man. Accompanying him was a dog with large eyes and curly tail, which was obviously the dog the stranger had rescued. The tall stranger was very thin. His skin, while it was dark, was not of the same color as Guatemala’s aboriginal peoples. His only garment was a crude sackcloth.
At the door, the stranger greeted the president with great dignity, bringing his right hand to his brow as a sign of respect.
“Who are you and why are you here in Guatemala?” asked the president.
“I can’t say, sir,” said the stranger. “Forgive me…it’s a vow.”
“Oh, yes! A vow? Do you know who I am?”
“All too well,” said the stranger.
“What do you mean, ‘all too well’? I can throw you in prison for being vagrant!” said the imperious Ubico.
“You may, if He who decides everything should permit it. But He will not do so, Mr. President. I know He won’t.”
The two men contemplated each for a few long seconds that seemed like hours. One was astride his career of power and intrigue, while the other was on a pilgrimage of humility and sanctification.
The stranger continued. “I am a physician, sir, and have diplomas from British and eastern universities. Besides, I was trying to save human lives.”
“Well then,” sputtered the president, “why don’t you charge for your services?”
Sighing, the dark stranger said, “It’s a vow, sir. For five years I must serve mankind, without money or compensation. I committed a sin and I must make reparation by travelling far from my country and in the deepest poverty. Zacapa’s climate reminds me of the country of my birth and that is why I stopped at the outskirts of the town. I am harmless and not interested in politics. If you have any questions about me, I ask that you contact the British Legation. I must not tell you my secret, but there they may tell you. I have only four months left. With your permission, I will stay in Zacapa until the time is up. I am asking you humbly because I am also doing a study of cancer.”
“Stay then,” said the president. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Nothing, Mr. President. I am a wealthy man. As soon as I leave, I will have more than enough money. As for the rest, only God can help me,” concluded the peaceable stranger.
“Well, then, when you depart, let me know,” said the president with a military rigor. Picking up his cap and spectacles from the table before him, Ubico thanked the stranger and departed. The stranger once again saluted the president and also left, leaving behind a mystery.
It was four months later that the office of the president received a telegram from the stranger. “Tomorrow,” it said, “I depart for India, my homeland. May THE LIGHT OF THE SPIRIT guide you, General Ubico, because there are dark times ahead.” The telegram was signed by an Indian dignitary whose name has been lost to history.
The stranger’s prognostication may indeed have come true for Ubico. While Ubico ruled the country with an iron fist, built public works, and demanded fawning adulation from his fellow Guatemalans, he would finally be sent into exile following a popular coup d’etat in 1944. It was as a guest of the U.S. government that he took residence in New Orleans in a house that is rumored to have belonged to the gangster, Al Capone. And it was there that he died in 1946, the victim of dark times and an implacable pursuit of power.